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Crowdsourcing Age-of-Sail Weather Data

An example of one of the treasure trove of ships’ logs from the Age of Sail to be reviewed online

An example of one of the treasure trove of ships’ logs from the Age of Sail to be reviewed online

Although big, multi-million-dollar projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the human genome project with their legions of PHD’s tend to grab headlines, there’s still a part of play for the “citizen scientists” of the world. Amateur birders have long contributed to an understanding of avian population fluctuations. Similarly, amateur astronomers have made substantial contributions over the years discovering comets and asteroids, and even helping identify exoplanets.

Now there’s a chance for mariners to show their stuff as part of something called the Weather Rescue at Sea project. According to organizers, scientists trying to determine how the climate of the early industrial era measures up against the climate today currently find themselves having to deal with a dearth of quantifiable data prior to the late 1800s. The good news is this kind of data does exist, having been recorded in countless logbooks by hundreds of different ship captains in the waning years of the Age of Sail. The bad news is teasing out this data represents a herculean effort far beyond the abilities of the researchers themselves.

Benjamin Franklin’s map of the Gulf Stream 

Benjamin Franklin’s map of the Gulf Stream 

“In 1854, a maritime conference of seafaring nations tried to codify observation taking and recordkeeping to standardize and share observations among themselves,” Weather Rescue at Sea organizers say. “That process amassed an enormous number of ‘standard’ logbooks containing detailed sub-daily weather observations at sea from around the globe.” However, transcribing, or “rescuing,” these hand-written observations from the “almost inexhaustible” number of logbooks in existence by individual researchers, would take “thousands of human lifetimes.”

Enter the sailing community.

To try and solve the problem, the Weather Rescue at Sea project is using a citizen science based Zooniverse platform that makes it possible for thousands of volunteers to review scanned copies of actual logbooks online and then codify the data they contain. At present, Weather Rescue is focusing on logbooks archived at the UK Hydrographic Office in Taunton, England, which cover a wealth of voyages to the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans in the 1860s and 1870s.

“The data generated through this project will help fill many crucial gaps in the large climate datasets, which will be used to generate new estimates of the industrial and pre-industrial era baseline climate,” Weather Rescue at Sea says. “More generally, this data and data from other historical sources are used to improve the models and reanalysis systems used for climate and weather research.”

The ship captains of old made meticulous weather observations 

The ship captains of old made meticulous weather observations 

As a side note, in taking part in the study, sailors and weather watchers will not only be helping modern researchers, they’ll also be helping to write the latest chapter in a long tradition of using the weather data generated by merchant mariners to better understand the nature of the world’s oceans. In 1775, for example, Benjamin Franklin succeeded in creating the very first chart of the Gulf Stream using information obtained from various merchant seaman and whaling captains.

Similarly, prior to the Civil War, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Matthew Fountaine Mary pored over thousands of ship’s logs during his time as the superintendent of the United States Naval Observatory to develop the first accurate charts of the trade winds and ocean currents sailors continue to rely on to this day. So, if you find yourself with time on your hands or weatherbound for the weekend, why not pay a visit to the Weather Rescue at Sea page and leave your personal mark on the history of seafaring? 

Ed note: To learn more about the Weather Rescue at Sea page help the group out with its efforts, go to zooniverse.org/projects/p-teleti/weather-rescue-at-sea

May 2022

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